ATLA: S1 Eps 5 & 6: The King of Omashu & Imprisoned

It’s late, I have some urgent chores to attend to, and I don’t have much to say about these two episodes as I think they are fairly weak.

As I wrote in my ATLA notebook as I watched Ep 5, “This ep is not working as well for me.”

As Aang, Katara, and Sokka (and Momo) enter the city of Omashu (where not that much plot-wise actually happens) I reflect on the apparent lack of women in the city, which makes me note that the adult women in Katara and Sokka’s home village seemed to have the function of the “mom at home” — that is, her job is to send out the actual active people to have adventures while she remains behind.

Except for Katara’s conversation with her grandmother, I don’t think this show has passed the Bechdel Test so far.

I know that this is supposed to get better in seasons 2 and 3, but I can’t help notice here and in so many other film and tv venues the lack of adult female role models for boys and girls alike. It’s as if GIRLS can now have adventures, but older women remain invisible?

In fact, in ep 6, Imprisoned, there is indeed a Mom-at-Home character who implores her rebellious son to “be quiet” and “don’t talk like that.” Eh. I understand her function in the plot, but, eh.

However, this is a more interesting episode if fairly predictable. It’s quite tightly plotted, and works as a standalone episode within the larger plot. The faked earthbending is amusing. Katara gets to make a great speech to the prisoners who have lost hope, and we see played out an interesting expression of resistance versus “you-can’t-win-this-fight” endurance. There are a few earthbending women seen in the background.

Best of all, Zuko gets Katara’s mother’s necklace. Can’t wait to see what comes of that!

ATLA: S1 Ep4: The Warriors of Kyoshi

Last week I meant to discuss Episode 4, The Warriors of Kyoshi, at the same time as Ep3, but I found I had enough to write about Ep3 that I left Ep4 until this week. Which is a good thing, because I really adore this episode for three reasons and so have a lot to say about it.

A quick precis: Our heroes arrive on Kyoshi where Aang shows off for Katara to impress her and almost become a snack for a large sea creature (as yet unseen). They are captured by warriors who are, as it happens, girls–in part, one suspects, because an earlier Avatar came from Kyoshi and she was a woman. Sokka makes an ass of himself by predictably figuring he can beat them just because they are girls. Prince Zuko gets wind of where they are and attacks the village, and Aang has to deal with his guilt about how by sheltering him, the village suffered, just as anyone who aids him in times to come will be vulnerable to attack by the Fire Nation.

“Look what I brought to this place,” he says. I predict this thematic material will be delved into further as we move into the series. One might call it, the price of doing the right thing or the price of speaking up or the price of standing up. I need to note that Kyoshi had, before this, stayed out of the war and that, furthermore, no one seems to have any bending power at all, which means they have no special powers to deploy against the Fire Nation.

Rhi commented: “The uncle makes the angsty teen boy much more bearable.” There can never be enough Iroh love.

First: I adore the animation in this episode. The unagi (the giant eel) is gorgeous.

I would like to note the classic three part structure of the unagi’s plot. In its first appearance it does not appear but menaces from beneath the waves, while all you see is its fin. In its second appearance it rises out of the water quite gloriously, but threatens our hero. In its third appearance, our hero has figured out how to use it to drive away the ships of the Fire Nation.

I also love the look and clothing of the young women. Which brings me to my second point.

Second: Yes, of course, I am a sucker for Suki and the girls in this episode. Not the younger ones who giggle over Aang; that’s cute and no doubt germane to the larger plot arc of Aang, but as I have said before, at the moment I’m not hugely invested in Aang’s plot arc in a personal way. I don’t dislike him–far from it–but he’s not the character who interests me most although I’m perfectly happy to see that change in the future.

The message might be said to be a bit heavy handed in this episode–channeled through Sokka–but honestly, I do not think the message that girls can do things is one we need to worry about overemphasizing given that there remains so much sexism in the world and in the USA.

The warriors who ambush Aang, Katara, and Sokka are just, in Sokka’s words, “a bunch of girls.” To which Katara ably replies, “my brother’s just an idiot sometimes.”

Sokka is an idiot in this episode, as he has been sporadically in the first three. It seems to be his role, but glimpses of his other side appear at intervals by way of a slow introduction to the ongoing development I expect to see in him.

This episode is full of cheap, predictable humor mostly at Sokka’s expense, and I loved it all. Of course he comes to respect the girls (and Suki). Of course Suki says to him, “I am a warrior but I’m a girl too.” I might have wished they had used “and” instead of “but” since “but” suggests an opposition or reversal. Still, the important thing is that Sokka despite his stereotypical adolescent male tendencies IN FACT is a person who listens and is willing to change his mind and has a deep-seated sense of fairness and justice. Yes, these will matter later.


In order to be allowed to practice with the girls, Sokka agrees to dress as a girl. This is an unpredictably subversive message, and the writers give it a final flourish. “Girls, come quickly!” is a line directed at all of Suki’s group, which at that moment includes Sokka dressed as a girl. He protests, “I’m not a –” and then he realizes it doesn’t matter if he is mistaken for a girl.

It doesn’t matter. For this moment alone I love this episode. That it doesn’t matter to him goes so against the societal message that the worst thing that can happen to a boy is to be mistaken for or compared to a girl that I love the writers for this so very much I will watch the rest of the show no matter what. Just for that bit. Just for that bit.

ATLA S1 Ep3: The Southern Air Temple

Having set up the basic world situation in the first two episodes, episode 3, The Southern Air Temple, offers a bit more backstory for two of the characters, our young avatar Aang and the angsty Prince Zuko. This episode functions structurally as a dual story of, if you will, a youth in conflict with his own past, the thing that has brought him to the difficult situation he is in now.

Aang takes Katara and Sokka to the temple where he was raised and shares with them some memories of the monk who was crucial to his training, which include the monk’s predilection for practical jokes. He has to figure out how to pierce the inner heart of the temple, with its statues of the avatars who came before him, and then he has to face the truth that all his people are gone and his home destroyed.

Prince Zuko must face Captain Zhao, an ambitious man who wants to humiliate Zuko and force him to return to the Fire Kingdom in disgrace. Rather than acquiescing, he fights him, not without aid from the cunning Uncle Iroh. The writers do a particularly nice job of dropping in the crucial information that Zuko was banished from court for an unspecified offense (if it was specified, I missed it).

Since my initial guess was that Zuko had been given this task to prove himself, I was intrigued by this new layer of complexity to his situation: He’s not just proving himself, he’s trying to restore his honor and get back the place he desires, not to mention echoes of a father/son dynamic with plenty of room for drama. It adds a level of interest to his character, not least because now, as a viewer, I wonder what he did and why it mattered and why Iroh is with him and for what purpose. As a writer, I note that these are all excellent questions to have the viewer asking herself because it makes her want to keep watching in order to get her questions answered.

Two emotions stand out in this episode.

First is Aang’s grief. His grief consumes him and, indeed, makes his power erupt. The overwhelming and dangerous emotion is contained by the presence of Katara and Sokka, his new family. This was nice and a little predictable, but that’s all right. I felt we were still getting eased into the larger story.

Zuko, of course, is defined by his anger, which is multifaceted but which swirls around his sense of himself as a failure, a person dishonored. This is the charge Zhao throws at him. But fundamentally for me, while Zuko does find his power and defeat Zhao, he does so in large part because his uncle has stuck with him. Again, the ties of family mean he is not alone. Although he doesn’t really appreciate it yet, he is strengthened and protected and lifted by his uncle’s belief in him.

I really like this underlying message. I suspect it will become one of the main thematic concerns of the series.

Watching ATLA: S1 E1-2

Avatar: The Last Airbender Season1 Episodes 1-2
I watched the first four episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) last year because my son’s girlfriend owns the first season and they urged me to watch it. We watched those first 4 episodes together, and then the watching with them lapsed and so I stopped watching even though I had enjoyed what I had seen so far. I am one who prefers to watch tv shows with other people so we can make comments as we watch and share observations.

I need to mention a few things:

1) I have three children, now all college age. ATLA’s three seasons ran from 2005 – 2008, which coincided with the end of their high school years, so these did not come up on my radar at that time, although I expect that was in large part because we don’t have cable so would have had to wait for it to come out on DVD regardless. By the time they were all in middle school I was in any case really burned out on children’s tv and films; it has taken me some years to even be open to viewing any again, as I came to pretty much loathe almost all of it. For years I had to take my kids to see films that bored me to tears or which I all too often really disliked for their male-centered reductionist vanilla-USA view of the world.

2) I will be riffing on the show as I watch it. I invite discussion. My criticisms do not constitute condemnation, just as the great things I enthuse about may not necessarily mean I think it perfect (forex, I liked both Firefly and Buffy a great deal, but I have criticisms of both shows). I do not expect to follow a consistent pattern in what I talk about. I will raise points that interest me in the moment. Those interested in discussing the show, please respond however you wish; don’t feel constrained by the points I raise. If you have other points you want to raise, then do so. Just, please, NO SPOILERS. Those of you who are superior to me in being able to tolerate spoilers, just please humor me in this. Spoil the eps I’m discussing and all those previous as much as you wish, just not future eps. Thanks.

3) I pretty much consider The Wire my favorite show ever shown on television (that I’ve seen, obviously). I’m approaching ATLA as an adult viewer with adult expectations and adult tastes, but with an understanding that the show is written for a children’s audience. I don’t expect to find in ATLA certain of the things I most loved about The Wire, but at the same time I do have expectations, from everything I’d been told and read, that this is a superior piece of storytelling that stands on its own and does not need the caveat “good for a kids’ show.” That is, I expect I will be watching a good story, period. Given that there are three seasons to play with, I would not be surprised to see some pretty sophisticated narrative unfold. We’ll see.

4) I plan to try to post every Wednesday night my time, which means Thursday in the rest of the world. I hope to review and discuss two episodes per week, if I can manage it. After the end of Season 1, I may take a short break before beginning Season 2, and the same for Season 3.

5) I wish I had done this when I watched Season 1 of Legends of the Galactic Empire with my son, Twin A. Oh well.

I will not at first talk much about the setting and the plethora of Asian, African, and Arctic-inspired people and places. ATLA is well known for its depiction of a world that is truly diverse, and I’m just going to take that as a given for the moment. I may comment on it as the mood takes me, but let me just note straight out here that, especially considering the recent sad regression toward bland Hollywood white male normativity, ATLA stands as a beacon. (The film was obviously an aberration that missed the point of the show entirely on many levels, so I’ll not mention it again.) Given ATLA’s commercial success, I can only hope that it will stand as a harbinger of things to come, a promise of steady change and expansion in the diversity of what is on offer to our increasingly diverse country as well as the countries to which programs made in the USA are exported. To get political for a moment, the weird and troubling retreat toward homogeneity pushed both by Hollywood and by some sections of the American population and political establishment is not just swimming against the tide of demographics, history, and social change but is actively deleterious to the health of our culture. So, in that sense, ATLA strikes me as an important piece in our ongoing cultural evolution.

Episodes 1 and 2 function as a set, a two part introduction to the world, the characters, and the story. This go round I watched with my daughter. Her comments will be prefaced with Rhi.

The opening is narrated by practical, level-headed Katara, a girl (I’m assuming she is about 13) of the water bending tribe who lives in or around the south pole of this planet; she’s ambitious, though–she wants to be taught how to waterbend, and no waterbenders remain in her tribe to teach her. She has an older brother, Sokka, who is 14 or 15 and often annoying and impulsive but also brave and loyal. Their mother is dead, killed in a Fire Nation raid, and their father and all the adult men in the village have gone overseas to someplace in the Earth Kingdom to fight against the invaders.

The story opens with brother and sister out fishing among the ice floes. The degree to which Sokka as a teen boy can be annoying (and making himself the center of attention) is constantly undercut and/or emphasized with humor. In fact, I’ll come back to that point later, because humor is consistently used to leaven and heighten the way the narrative unfolds.

The basic premise: There are four elements, water, earth, fire, and air. “Benders” can manipulate those elements. The “avatar” can manipulate all four. In the last 100 years the Fire Nation has advanced a program of steady conquest, including wiping out (as far as anyone knows) all the people of the Air Nation. The last avatar was said to be an airbender.

Katara and Sokka finds a 12 year old boy encased in an iceberg. As Rhi said, “Best release of a legendary hero ever: through sibling arguing!”

Over the course of eps 1 and 2 it is revealed that our boy Aang is the last airbender, the avatar who is the last hope for humanity to halt the conquest of the Fire Nation. We’re also introduced to Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, his Uncle Iroh, and Zuko’s quest to prove himself by finding and capturing the avatar.

I could do more of a plot synopsis, but I’m not interested in discussing that for this first entry. I want to talk about the exceptional job the writers have done with introducing the world smoothly, quickly, and clearly.

I do big ticket world-building, so I know what I’m talking about. This is really well done. It’s a simple set up that leaves a huge amount of room for later complexity.

The writers introduce exactly as much as you need to know in each scene. Each scene is framed around either a humorous episode or a piece of action that will forward the story but which also reveals something of the basic situation in the world. The viewer never gets piled on with two much information. There’s a fair amount of “tell” but it’s short, to the point, and handled with absolute clarity of explanation. When the degree of information load starts hitting critical, the story breaks for something as seemingly trivially entertaining as penguin sledding. Which is then used to transition the narrative movement into another scene where more world and character building takes place. When the tone grows serious, humor breaks the mood (the little boy saying “I have to pee”), or helps to focus how the viewer is pulling in information.

These first two ATLA episodes are, to my mind, a textbook example of how to introduce a world, characters, and story. The basis for greater complexity is absolutely there but anything that isn’t necessary for the initial introduction is left for later.

The character building at this point is fairly basic without being shallow, but for this entry I don’t have much to say about that. Aang’s crush on Katara is sweet and, together with his youth, goofiness, and mistakes, helps to humanize a boy who is otherwise ridiculously too powerful; humor also is consistently used to undercut and make manageable Aang’s super power. Zuko is properly angsty, and of course I adore Uncle Iroh, a classic example of the man pretending to be a bit of a fool who obviously is a deep strategist. Although Aang is the avatar, Katara and Sokka are, to my mind, really the anchor that holds the story together, and they’re both necessary in ways that I may try to discuss later. Aang’s destiny is to a degree known, but Katara and Sokka have just started journeys whose outcome can’t yet be predicted.

And that, I think, is where I’ll end this quite long entry: After seeing the first two episodes of ATLA, I cannot in fact predict what the path is going to look like. And that’s pretty impressive.


Watching ATLA, Cold Fire the First Chapter, & Comfort Food

Later this week, I will begin a series of posts in which I describe my reactions to watching Avatar: The Last Airbender (the animated series). I haven’t seen the series before, my children were in high school when it came out, and we didn’t have cable anyway, so Nickelodeon was inaccessible to us at the time regardless. My goal is to post once a week, late on Wednesday night my time, and I hope interested parties will join in a discussion. I was put up to this by a person on Twitter. He knows who he is.

The first post will cover episodes 1 and 2, since together they comprise a single introductory story. Join me!


Orbit Books has posted the first chapter of COLD FIRE and you can find it HERE.


I’ve contacted the winners of the Cold Fire giveaway but I won’t announce until I’ve heard back from all of them.

I really want to thank everyone who entered, because I have to say that reading your descriptions of comfort food was some of the best reading I’ve done this year. Also, it made me hungry and contented at the same time, no small feat.

Of course no discussion of comfort food is complete without a photo, this one courtesy of Melanie Ujimori.